Google may have to say how it gets electronic offline purchase data

A US organization has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate a new system from Google whereby the company links people’s internet activity to their offline purchases with debit cards. It is unclear how Google obtained this information.

The American interest group EPIC, which stands up for the privacy rights of citizens, is not happy with Google’s so-called Store Sale Measurement program. The organization wants Google to stop this. According to the organization, Google collects billions of transactions in America completed with credit and regular debit cards; this data is then linked to the activities of internet users.

According to Google, this system is revolutionary because it allows advertisers to determine with a high degree of certainty whether clicking Internet ads actually led to a purchase in a physical store. When Google introduced the system, Google stated that the data is well protected and that privacy is guaranteed, but the interest group wants Google to provide transparency about what data the search giant collects about payments made in physical stores with credit and regular debit cards.

Specifically, EPIC wants to know how Google obtained this information and what encryption methods are used to ensure that user data remains anonymous. According to the organization, Google is refusing to release details about how the algorithm used ensures consumers’ anonymity when their purchases are mapped. In addition to banning the use of this system, EPIC wants the FTC to determine whether Google adequately protects consumer privacy.

Google says it can map about 70 percent of payments with debit and credit cards in the US through collaboration with third parties. Through machine learning and an algorithm, the data is anonymized and secured, after which it is automatically linked to millions of American users of Google services, such as the search engine, Maps or YouTube. Google has not disclosed which parties are responsible for providing access to the transaction information.

According to The Washington Post, which says it has seen the official complaint, EPIC says consumers can’t make an informed decision about which debit card they don’t want to use unless they know how Google gets the purchase information. Also, consumers can’t know which store to ignore if they don’t want their purchases tracked. The organization also states that the transaction information may also reveal sensitive information, such as medical conditions or religious background.

Google told the paper that the company does not have access to names or personal information derived from the transactions, and that this data is not shared with third parties. Google also says that internet users can easily stop the system from tracking them by turning off the ‘web activity’ option in Google’s product settings. The privacy organization believes that this option is vague and unclear; in fact, nothing is said about the mapping of credit card data. In addition, EPIC states that Google still stores data about users’ browsing and clicking behavior, regardless of whether users have disabled tracking.